A spate of horrific violence against minorities, bombs targeting top Democrats and reporters and President Trump’s response to the attacks have shifted the national conversation in the final week before the 2018 midterms, with strategists in both parties unsure how it will impact an already-tense campaign.
The murder Saturday of 11 Jewish worshippers in Pittsburgh by a gunman who allegedly spewed anti-Semitic vitriol capped a chilling week in which a virulent supporter of President Trump was arrested for allegedly mailing bombs to a slew of senior Democratic officials and CNN and a white man in Kentucky allegedly shot two black people at a grocery store after failing to gain entrance into a predominantly African American church.
Those events and President Trump’s uneven and at times inflammatory response to them have dominated headlines with just days to go in the most heated and emotionally wrought midterm election in recent memory.
Strategists from both parties agree that while the tragedies may effect voters, no one’s sure what the events’ fallout will be. Still, there are some early signs they might not be helping the president’s party.
Trump’s approval rating fell to 40 percent with 54 percent disapproving in Gallup’s weekly tracking poll, released Monday, down from a 44 percent to 50 percent split just one week earlier. That might just be statistical noise, but it’s one of the largest one-week drops for the president in the past two years and the largest one-week dip since the child separation border crisis roiled the White House in June.
The apparent slip in his standing came during the week of the bomb threats and Trump’s response of continuing to bash his political foes and the press. The poll also covered the day of and the day after the synagogue attacks in Pittsburgh. It comes shortly after both Trump and his party have sharply increased their use of deeply polarizing messaging in the race’s closing weeks, including some comments and ads that their opponents have viewed as racist and anti-Semitic.
The president has refused to rein in his rhetoric in the wake of the attacks. His first comments following the attack on Saturday were to call for the increased use of the death penalty. He continued on to a previously scheduled political rally, joking about a “bad hair day” as the reason he considered canceling. The next day, he attacked Tom Steyer, a billionaire Democratic donor who is Jewish, as a “crazed and stumbling lunatic.”
Just watched Wacky Tom Steyer, who I have not seen in action before, be interviewed by @jaketapper. He comes off as a crazed & stumbling lunatic who should be running out of money pretty soon. As bad as their field is, if he is running for President, the Dems will eat him alive!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 28, 2018
He’s also continued to attack the media during this period, attacking the “fake news media” as the “true enemy of the people” — even though CNN, a regular target for the president, was also one of the places his supporter sent a bomb.
“The president is going to continue to draw contrasts,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders proclaimed on Monday.
Other Republicans have faced some renewed questions about some of their more charged attacks on Democrats in the wake of the murders in Pittsburgh.
In a top tossup House race in Minnesota, the National Republican Congressional Committee has aired an ad tying the Democratic candidate to wealthy Jewish donor George Soros. That ad has drawn charges of anti-Semitism because of its attacks on Soros, a billionaire liberal donor and Holocaust survivor who has been used as a bogeyman for years both by non-anti-Semitic mainstream Republicans and by those on the fringe who believe in a global Jewish conspiracy theory.
“Prima donna athletes protesting our anthem. Left-wing mobs paid to riot in the streets. Billionaire George Soros bankrolls the resistance,” the ad intoned.
The alleged Pittsburgh shooter aired criticisms of Trump — but also made angry comments claiming Soros was financing the refugee caravan approaching the U.S. border. Trump has routinely highlighted that caravan as a key argument in his closing campaign message, even as others like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), a close Trump ally, and some Fox News talking heads have made similar baseless allegations about Soros’ supposed role in the caravan.
A follow-up ad the NRCC released after Soros received a bomb in the mail last week attacks “radical George Soros” while portraying a cartoon image of him with a Wall Street sign behind his head.
NRCC Chairman Steve Stivers (R-OH) defended those spots on Sunday.
“That ad is factual. And it also has nothing to do with calling for violence,” he said on NBC.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) also sent, then deleted, a tweet saying Soros, Steyer and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is also Jewish, are “buying” the elections.
The violent attacks themselves and Trump’s response are unlikely to wind up explicitly at the center of any races. Most candidates have already produced their final ads and are focusing on their own closing messages. Even if the attacks remain top-of-mind for some voters, it’s dangerous for politicians to weigh in too hard on the events, lest they be viewed as politicizing national tragedies.
“Politically, you’re in dangerous territory, and my counsel is you stay away from this,” former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), a former head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told TPM. “Don’t fan the flames. Voters are troubled by what they’ve seen. The political parties and candidates who try to hype that stuff to their political advantage, it tends to backfire.”
Most candidates haven’t sought to highlight the issue politically. One exception: Businessman Sean Casten, who’s in a hotly contested race against Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL), attacked his opponent on Monday for a planned event with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) because Rubio has strongly supported the National Rifle Association’s agenda in the past.
“Two days ago, our nation experienced another mass shooting, which was one of our nation’s deadliest hate crimes, and it was committed by a shooter with a deadly assault weapon,” Casten said in a statement. “For far too long, Peter Roskam, Marco Rubio and our representatives in Congress have failed to act to address the epidemic of gun violence. Instead, they are too been beholden to their donors and the gun lobby.”
But Trump’s standing with voters will continue to play an outsized role in the midterms. And with a number of crucial Senate and House races within the margin of error heading into the campaign’s final days, even a minor dip for the president with voters could prove fatal for his party.
The fallout from Trump’s response also could a larger impact in House and gubernatorial races which are being fought in more suburban and purple territory than in the Senate, where Trump’s standing remains solid in most of the red states where the battle is being fought.
“It could mean worse news for the House next Tuesday for sure, but in the Senate I think we’re looking at staying where we are. … The national number rarely translates to red states as neatly as it does to more evenly divided states,” said one GOP strategist working on Senate elections.
But a call for unity might resonate more now than even a few weeks ago, like Sen. Joe Donnelly’s (D-IN) closing ad that laments how “badly divided” the country is and promises to work across the aisle.
“The reason they’ve been open to Democrats all cycle has been Trump’s behavior. And obviously Donald Trump isn’t putting bombs in the mail or shooting up synagogues — but his rhetoric matters and it shakes people,” said one Democrat strategist working on Senate races.
But that strategist concurred with others in both parties who sought to discern, with limited hard data, what the horrific week’s impact would be on the crucial midterms.
“God’s honest truth is we really don’t know,” said the strategist.